Bar-hopping is a popular and time-honored tradition on St. Patrick’s Day. But this year there’s another very attractive option, one very much in keeping with the spirit and humor of the Irish people and their American descendants.
Flanagan’s Wake, an interactive theatrical offering set at an Irish wake, has been attracting audiences to its raucous celebration of all things Irish (and death) for years. Not surprisingly, the show has proven incredibly popular in Chicago. Now, Fort Wayne is going to find out what other cities have experienced with this rollicking play.
Funeral home becomes theater
Like any good wake, this one will take place at a funeral home, specifically Harper’s Community Funeral Home in New Haven. Funeral director David Rousculp will also serve as director of Flanagan.
That might sound unusual, but Rousculp has merged his day job with this hobby before. His play My Dead Clown was staged at First Presbyterian less than two years ago.
The idea for staging Flanagan’s Wake came through news of another similar production.
“I heard of another funeral home in Michigan doing it as a fundraiser for their local civic theater that needed a new roof,” Rousculp said. “That really got my attention because we already have all the props, and I thought we could do a fundraiser here too. My favorite is Shepherd’s House, so I decided to do that.”
Rousculp was also mindful of other recent productions, like the recent performances of Little Shop of Horrors performed in a greenhouse, and thought Fort Wayne was open to performances in less traditional venues.
And Harper’s provides a surprisingly loose environment for a play and, because this is an Irish wake, a bar.
Adapting the production to the daily duties of a funeral home was less difficult than it might sound at first blush.
“Not everyone realizes that we have a second chapel here,” Rousculp said. “We usually just use the main chapel for our visitations and services, but I can seat 150 chairs in the chapel. It’s actually the largest chapel in the county, and I could even get 180 in there if it really got crazy, though I prefer not to make everyone sit elbow to elbow like that. Our schedule will work pretty well around the funerals since most of those are during the day.”
Never the same show
With only a few performances times that might conflict with services — and a backup plan in place to accommodate any overlap —Harper’s is ready to become a theater.
Rousculp notes that there are no scene changes, so the set can easily be ready for the run. With only a casket and a team of talented actors, the production can focus on content rather than a lot of logistics.
And the content is something the cast has already seen in action.
“A couple weeks ago, I got a 12-passenger van and took the cast to Cleveland to see it live with real pros,” Rousculp said. “The great thing about the show is that it’s never the same show. The audience brings something different to each performance so when someone asks, ‘How did Flanagan die?’ and the audience member says, ‘He slipped on a pickle,’ then the cast has to work with that.”
Although that twist in cast/audience interaction sounds chaotic, Rousculp said that there is still plenty of structure. But there is also plenty of opportunity to let the cast’s own improvisational abilities bring the show to life in a different way each performance.
“We really do follow the script, and it’s 90 percent the same every night,” he said. “Where it starts to go in different directions is when it comes to how Flanagan died. We have a jar full of weird stuff that might come up, and we’ll pull those and see where they go with it.
“I’ve been really impressed with the stuff this cast has just pulled out of their rears with these different things. Every night at rehearsals we are all laughing so hard. It’s like sitting in a room of comedy writers. They get all wound up, and they are all so funny. There’s just some great stuff going on with this cast.”
Merging two career paths
Rousculp doesn’t always know what direction his work as a funeral director and his love of theater will take him, but with My Dead Clown and Flanagan’s Wake, he has certainly found a couple of interesting ways to take it.
He said he’s been approached about other possible projects, such as a staging of The Addams Family, but many felt somewhat macabre to him.
But with Flanagan’s Wake, he feels he’s found a perfect way to merge those areas while raising money for a good cause and providing a safe and entertaining St. Patrick’s Day celebration.
“My name doesn’t sound Irish, but I’m very Irish on my mother’s side,” Rousculp said. “In your 20s and 30s, people tend to celebrate by going out and getting drunk and throwing up. When you get older — and I’m 56 now — you just can’t do that.
“I’m proud to be Irish and love celebrating my Irish pride without having to be squished into a bar. And the proceeds go to Shepherd’s House, so I think it’s a great way to celebrate that weekend.”
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